Crates in games are much like a living fossil now; they have been around for a looooong time, and a lot has since been written about crates in video games. There are even art projects about this trope. Everything about crates in games has been said. But not by me. Onwards!
Games can be rated and compared based on the shortest amount of time it takes a player to reach the first crate, which represents the point where the developers ran out of ideas. This number is measured in seconds and is called “Start to Crate” or “StC”. The smaller the StC, the worse the game.
— Old Man Murray (source).
While I wouldn’t go as far as considering a game with a very low StC to be necessarily a bad game, the question remains: Why? Why are crates (or variations thereof) everywhere in almost any game? Why are they so hard to get rid of? Why do game designers keep defaulting to the box, just WHY?!
Well, there are a lot of decent reasons. A crate is for game designers what a towel is for a hitchhiker through the galaxy. So let’s look at some of them more closely to find out what’s so enticing about them.
Crates are boxes.
Duh! But it also means that they are easy to code and render. In their simplest form, they are just six planes (= 12 triangles). As for texturing, just do one side and – presto! – you can use it on all six. Neat! Even the first generation of 3D capable hardware had no problems with lots of crates. Nowadays they are of course more intricate in appearance, lots of details, polygons, normal maps, specularity, the full Monty.
When it comes to physics calculation, crates are also very grateful: No concave surfaces, no round corners, no variety in material properties, no bones, no skin, and probably the simplest three-dimensional collision mesh there is.
We know crates.
Before we begin, here’s a little tutorial message for you:
You just encountered a Xetonian Construct! Inside, you can find different power-ups that help you on your quest, but you can’t know what’s inside until you use your Creo-Phazer to break its containment field. Once its integrity is compromised, you won’t be able to use the Xetonian Construct as stepping stone to reach higher platforms. You can also destroy Xetonian Constructs by exposing them to Ulovar gas which will also degrade the integrity of the Xetonian Construct.
Okay, that’s a lot of confusing game mechanics exposition for me as a player and the chances are that I forget most of it after five seconds. The next time I encounter a “Xetonian Construct”, I have no idea what it is or what it does. Not so with crates.
While I can’t recall the last time I saw a crate in real life (probably in some warehouse or construction site), we all know crates. I mean culturally. We know that crates are meant to contain something inside. Crates usually are made out of wood. And we know how that works as well: It’s sturdy but breaks under force, it can float on water, and it can burn. As straightforward as this sounds, from a game-design perspective it’s great because it’s “free” in a sense that you don’t have to educate players what a crate is and how it works in your game. Warren Spector also is a great fan of using real-world concepts we are all familiar with in games for a number of reasons, but that’s a different story.
So let’s switch the “Xetonian Construct” from above with “crate”, do some other word replacements and we end up with this:
You just encountered a [crate]! Inside, you can find different power-ups that help you on your quest, but you can’t know what’s inside until you use your [weapon] to break [it]. Once its [broken], you won’t be able to use the [crate] as stepping stone to reach higher platforms. You can also destroy [crates] by exposing them to [fire] which will also [destroy] the [crate].
That sounds such stupid and obvious that you don’t need this overhead of terribly written exposition. Just present the player with a crate and everybody knows what they can do with it right away.
As established above, crates hide what’s in them. In games, usually power-ups or other helpful stuff is in for the player. Smashing a crate and finding out what’s inside is fun because most players like positive surprises.
Having a crate visible but not immediately accessible to the player is a much bigger incentive for them to try to find a way and check it out than the contained item were lying in the open, “Another clip of .41 ammo? No thanks, got plenty of those”. But put it in a crate and you can bet your hard working ass that players will go out of their way to see what’s inside. Even if it’s the item they don’t need, they still don’t feel cheated, if usually the stuff they find is useful (which literally makes it a Skinner Box of some kind).
Crates in disguise.
Crates don’t have to look like crates to function like crates. Old Man Murray described the concept of the “circular crate” already in 2000: The Barrel. More examples? Treasure chests in RPGs. Barrels in medieval/pirate settings Or any pottery in the Zelda series.
More than a crate.
Depending on the genre, crates can have different uses, all related to their real-world properties in various respects. In shooters they can act as temporary cover too, even as weapons (especially when you’re wielding a gravity gun) or they appear as steps, weights and floats in puzzle-games.
So to answer the questions, The Crate in a game stands for a simple real-world concept translated into a game, usually in the form of a hollow object that’s containing something useful for the player inside. Since our GPUs have advanced quite a bit, it can have any form nowadays. Yet mostly it has the form of a grey-brown box because how else could players still be able to tell that something is supposed to be a crate?
Think outside the box.
To me, The Crate does not necessarily exemplify the very moment game designers ran out of ideas. At first it was even quite clever to include some object from the real world into the medium of games. The problem is that because this has been overused, we’re a bit stuck in a rut here. If we don’t have some concept of The Crate in our games, players might need to be unduly encumbered with a lot of exposition (cf. the fictitious tutorial entry describing the “Xetonian Construct”, above). On the other hand, if we just throw a crate in there everybody recognizes as such, it’s lazy world-/game-design.
Instead, we need to take a step back. We need to consider The Crate in the big picture. What gameplay mechanics does it bring to the game? “Items for the player,” perhaps? But is it really necessary to have them hidden in crates then? Or is there a better way to do this?
Think about what features of The Crate are essential to your game and dismiss everything else. If your game uses crates to hide valuable items for the player, how about workbenches where players can craft their own? Or dispensers where they can choose one of three possible items? It all depends on your genre and setting, of course. In an adventure or survival game, a dropped backpack in a certain spot with a certain combination of items in it can even tell a story. Instead of damaging the believability of the world you depict, this would do the opposite. Who would put a single clip of ammo in a big wooden crate anyway?
If you rely on crates as a default prop in your levels for players to reach higher platforms, just research for alternatives. Do crates make that much sense in a family home? Or in a grassy meadow? What different prop would be more reasonable in a certain setting? The natural habitat of crates are warehouses, and those are boring. If you must, please add forklifts, crowbars, and pallets—all invaluable when dealing with crates in the real world.
So as a designer if you want to avoid the stigma of The Crate, you have to invest a little in deconstructing the stereotype. And that’s really all you need to do. Consider your big picture, both in terms of your story and gameplay mechanics. I am sure you will come up with a lot of original, more interesting, and better fitting equivalents of the good old crate. Realizing you have a crate problem is the first step in solving it.